CALGARY (Reuters) — Workers for one of the largest oil sands companies affected by a massive wildfire in northern Canada will begin returning to the shuttered facilities on Thursday, a union official said on Wednesday, offering the latest indication that the key petroleum production area was slowly coming back online.
Meanwhile, the premier of the province of Alberta and the head of the Canadian Red Cross announced that residents of Fort McMurray, the oil-boom town that was evacuated last week because of the fire, would be offered direct financial aid.
Ken Smith, president of Unifor Local 707, a union that represents 3,400 Suncor Energy workers, said the company was starting to fly employees back to its oil sands base plant from Thursday.
"It will take a few days to get the plant up and in condition to start handling feed. The mine can get going as soon as the trucks and shovels are ready but it will take the plant a bit longer to become functional," Smith said. "There are a lot of different units that run to make everything happen up there, it's a very complex work site." Smith said they would be flown to Suncor's Firebag site, about 120 km north of Fort McMurray, and transported by bus to the base plant.
Suncor chief executive Steve Williams had said a day earlier that none of the company's facilities in the area, which have a production capacity of about 350,000 barrels per day (bpd), had been damaged, and he expected to be able to restart production soon.
Facilities north of Fort McMurray that had been shuttered largely because of heavy smoke rather than fire were likely to come back on line first, in a matter of days in many cases.
Roughly one million bpd of output was shut down during the fire, about half of the oil sands' usual daily production, as producers and pipeline operators curbed activities and moved workers out of harm's way.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, meanwhile, said energy companies have not asked his government for any assistance with the restart.
"Of course our commitment is to do whatever is necessary to help the people of Fort McMurray and the industry itself get back on its feet," he said in an interview, adding he plans to visit the area on Friday.
Royal Dutch Shell became the first company to resume its operation in the center of Canada's oil sands region. The company restarted its Albian Sands mines at a reduced rate and would use fly-in staff to ramp up operations, it said on Monday. The facility can produce up to 255,000 bpd.
Syncrude, controlled by Suncor Energy, restarted power generation at its oil sands mine in Aurora, north of the city, on Tuesday as it began planning to resume operations. The site has a total capacity of around 315,000 bpd.
In another sign that the recovery from the blaze continues, power availability in the Fort McMurray area also edged higher as some cogeneration units ramped up output, although it remained well below capacity.
RELIEF FOR EVACUEES
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the province was making cash available immediately to the 90,000 evacuees from the fire zone. The funds, $1,250 per adult and $500 per child, would be distributed by debit cards beginning immediately to evacuees in Edmonton, Calgary and Lac La Biche.
"The Fort McMurray fire has affected the lives of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, Albertans who have contributed so much to the health and wellbeing of every community in this province," Notley said at a press conference in Edmonton. "This (funding) represents our collective commitment to help them through this crisis so their lives can return to normal as soon as possible."
Canadian Red Cross Chief Executive Conrad Sauve said his agency was making $50 million in funds available to the relief effort now, out of $67 million that had been raised so far.
"This is only the first days of this, we are in week one of the evacuation. This is the most important cash transfer we have done in our history and the fastest one," Sauve said at the press conference. "We'll be working with the province in the days and weeks and months to come because this recovery will be long."
The size of the fire was little changed on Wednesday morning, at still roughly 229,000 hectares (566,000 acres) and moving away from the community. Wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather said no communities were threatened.
"We think we've got this thing beat in McMurray," local fire chief Darby Allen said in a video message posted late on Tuesday. "We're looking pretty good."